Began career as actor, turned to directing during Third Reich working closely with Joseph Goebbels, Minister for Propaganda and Popular Enlightenment. According to Nazi policy of Gleichschaltung, all aspects of German society had to be "adjusted" to fit Nazi ideology. Thus all cultural endeavours, including films, were rigorously controlled by Goebbels (Reichsfilmkammer) to achieve this end. The themes expressed by Nazi propaganda were comradeship ("trench socialism" and the superiority of the group over the individual), heroism (courage and self-sacrifice in battle for the benefeit of the collective), the importance of the Nazi Party (NSDAP), "blood and soil" (ethnicity and German nationalism), the Führerprinzip (the principle of leadership, i.e. follow Hitler right or wrong, the cult of the Führer), the example of great historical leaders (Bismarck, Frederic the Great), war themes to encourage the war effort, images of the enemy designed to inspire hatred (Jews, Bolsheviks, the British).
Since historical themes were an important part of Nazi propaganda films it is important to understand how Nazi fimmakers used the past. In a press conference in December 1943 Harlan and Wolfgang Liebeneiner were quoted on the topic of historical authenticity:
At the outset Professor Liebeneiner had asked whether films in historical costume were ever justified, i.e. films that are set in a period when there were as yet no films. Only later did we appreciate that one of the principal tasks of the film is its capacity to transmit to posterity a true picture of the past and, seen in this light, all the films that we are making today will one day be truly "historical". Should a historical film therefore attempt to remain true in all aspects to the history that has been handed down to us? In a sense, yes, for the film should not falsify history. But art, and film art in particular, consists to a great extent of omission. And so a historical film can only ever show a part, a small chapter of history that should nevertheless remind us of the great events. (quoted in Welch, p. 184).
In his book Mein Kampf (1925) Hitler discusses the importance of propaganda and notes that effective propaganda must be truthful, it must be partial and selective truth which is endlessly repeated until people accept it as the entire truth.
The name of the small town on the Prussian Baltic coast whose inhabitants courageously held out against Napoleon's invading forces in 1806-7 at a time when the professional military were ready to surrender. A symbol of the heroism of ordinary Germans in the face of immanent defeat and used for propaganda pursposes by the Nazis int he closing months of the war.
The film is loosely based on historical events that took place in the Baltic coast town of Kolberg during 1806-7. In October 1806 Napoleon defeated the main Prussian armies at the battles of Jena and Austerlitz, occupied Berlin 2 weeks later and then turned to eastern Prussia to complete his victories. Once Prussia was removed from the war he could concentrate on Spain and Russia (the great prize). The road through Kolberg led to Königsberg and then on to St Petersburg. The fortress town of Kolberg was a slight hiccup in this victory. The garrison commander who had a sinecure for retirement was replaced in April 1807 by a younger man, Gneisenau, who led a force of 5,700 men against a French force which reached a peak of 13,000 after 2 months of besieging the town. The town suffered 870 casualties but was still in Prussian hands when the war ended. Gneisenau went on to an illustrious career as a leading figure in the reform of Prussian society and army after the defeat and was Blücher's chief of staff at Waterloo where Napoleon was finally defeated.
In the film, despite the corruption of the local government and the defeatism of the professional military the Mayor (the Führer figure) is able to rally the citizens in a Volksturm (Land Army or Local Militia) to shame the professional soldiers by defending their town from French invasion. The film uses the device of a "flashback" from 1813 to reveal what happened in 1806-7. Harlan co-wrote the screenplay and Goebbels himself added several of the main speeches in drafts of the screenplay which he corrected and approved. Harlan was tried in March-April 1949 for "crimes against humanity" (viz. the anti-semitism of Jud Süss) but was acquitted for lack of evidence.
The film historian David Welch observes that by 1942 Nazi Propaganda Minister Goebbels realised that final victory could only be achieved by mobilising the German home front as part of the shift to total war. Costly historical dramas which showed the endurance of the German people in the face of overwhelming odds were commissioned as the following quote indicates:
At this stage Goebbels was continually looking for a sign that would persuade the people to believe in a final victory. The thrust of his message was that if only the German people stood firm, a miracle might yet save them, like 'the miracle of the House of Brandenburg' in 1759. In January 1943 he informed his staff: "It ought to be the mission of all German propaganda to create a myth from the heroism of Stalingrad, a myth which can become a precious ornament in German history." He must have decided that the cinema was the most effective medium for such an important and emotional task, for five months later he commissioned Veit Harlan to direct what was to be the last Agfacolor film, Kolberg, loosely based on the events that occurred in the town of Kolberg in the Franco-Prussian War of 1806/7: "I hereby commission you to produce the epic film Kolberg. The film is to demonstrate, through the example of the town that gives it its title, that a people united at home and at the front will overcome any foe. I authorize you to request whatever assistance you feel necessary from all Government, Party, and military agencies."...
Goebbels's overriding problem in producing Kolberg was that despite the Kolbergers' courageous resistance they were eventually overwhelmed by the French. It is a measure of how far Nazi propaganda had become entrenched in a mythical world that the Propaganda Minister ordered Harlan to disregard historical fact, even when it revealed such heroism, and to invent a love story in order to give the scenario a human dimension! However, the importance of Kolberg is that it brings together archtypal themes that pervaded the Nazi cinema: the Führeprinzip, national idealism, obedience, and sacrifice, and the indomitable spirit of the 'real Germans' (Echtdeutsche). It also offers a unique insight into the behaviour of a totalitarian police state and its response to imminent collapse. (Welch, German Cinema, pp. 225-6).
David Welch, Propaganda and the German Cinema, 1933-1945 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989).
Peter Paret, "Kolberg (1945) as a Historical Film and Historical Document," Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 1994, vol. 14, no. 4, pp. 433-48.
David Culbert, "Kolberg: Film, Filmscript and Kolobrzeg Today (Comment by Hans J. Fabian; Photographs by Hans-Joachim Grohmann," Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 1994, vol. 14, no. 4, pp. 449-66.
"Microfiche Supplement: 1. David Culbert and David Welch, Kolberg: An English Translation of the Script" (62 pp.) in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 1994, vol. 14, no. 4.
1. Kolberg (1945) is an example of what I call the "pure war film". Compare with Mizoguchi's The Loyal 47 Ronin (1941-2); Sergei Eisenstein, Ivan the Terrible (1943); Lewis Seiler, Guadalcanal Diary (1943); Laurence Olivier, Henry V (1944).
2. The theme of the Führerprinzip (the leadership principle) with parallels to be drawn between the past and the present.
3. The choice of "victory or death" for the Prussian/German people (collective suicide?). What in the film, according to Goebbels, would make audiences think that "final victory" was still possible?
4. The importance of historical films to the Nazi propaganda effort. Why did they spend so much money making expensive historical costume dramas (in expensive colour) even when the final outcome of the war became clear? When Soviet forces were crossing the East Prussian border Goebbels diverted 187,000 soldiers (a figure disputed by Paret) and 4,000 sailors from active duty and spend RM 8.5 million (twice the average budget for a similar film) to make sure the film would be completed on time. Why bother? A faint hope that Germany could survive the "defeat of 1807/1945" and go on to another victory (or War of Liberation) in 1815/? against Napoleon/ The Allies?
5. What parts of the historical record have been "included" and what "omitted" to make this film Nazi propaganda?
6. The unavoidable historical problem that the French ultimately defeated Prussia, if not the town of Kolberg.
7. The linking of the "myth of Kolberg" with other myths of "heroic defeat" such as Stalingrad, the defeat of the Afrika Korps. But note also the warning of possible annihilation following the failure of the Luftwaffe to defend German cities from British and American bombers (the equivalent of the French artillery besieging the town of Kolberg).
8. The veiled criticism by Goebbels of the Wehrmacht (the professional German Army) for defeatism and the appeal to "true Germans" to fight to the bitter end themselves in a "people's army".
9. The opening quote from a 1813 poem by Theodor Körner (Goebbels uses the image of the peope rising and the storm breaking in his infamous "Total War" speech of 31 March 1943). The image of the defeated people, rising phoenix-like from the ashes:
Chorus: With a death-like mood the great morning breaks. And the sun, cold and bloody, lights our bloody way. Within the next few hours the fate of the world lies, and the weak are already trembling and the dice are cast. Who is cowardly, remaining idle? People rise up! People rise up! The storm is breaking!
10. The way in which the present (1945) copies propaganda depicting history: in March 1945 the Nazi commander of Kolberg wanted to surrender the city to the Russians who were advancing through Prussia on their way to Berlin. Hitler replaced him with a younger officer and Goebbels noted in his diary: "Have these degenerate generals no sense of history or responsibility? Does a present-day Military Commandant or Kolberg nurture the ambition to emulate a Lacadou rather than a Gneisenau". (quoted in Welch, p. 227 fn). The town fell to the Russians on 19 March 1945 and suffered 80% destruction of buildings etc.
11. The spirit of the true Nazi woman - Maria, who suffers the loss of family and beloved for the sake of the town's defence. Nevertheless, she does show independence and strength of character - what one migh call "fascist feminism".
12. The film's premier was 30 January 1945, the 12th anniversary of the Nazi rise to power, and a copy was flown to the besieged fortress at La Rochelle to be shown to the troops. It was also shown in cinemas in Königsberg (not far from Kolberg) as they were being besieged by the Russians.
13. Goebbels' sense that he was living in a film of the Nazi's own making (compare US soldiers in Vietnam playing John Wayne "movies in their heads"). In April 1945 as Berlin was being encircled Goebbels spoke to his staff at the Propaganda Ministry about the spirit of resistance in the film Kolberg and predicted that an even more important historical film would one day be made about their final hours defending the Reich:
Gentlemen, in a hundred years' time they will be showing another fine colour film describing the terrible days we are living through. Don't you want to play a part in this film, to be brought back to life in a hundred years' time? Everybody now has a chance to choose the part which he will play in the film a hundred years hence. I can assure you that it will be a fine and elevating picture. And for the sake of this prospect it is worth standing fast. Hold out now, so that a hundred years' hence the audience does not hoot and whistle when you appear on the screen. (quoted in Welch, p. 234 fn).
14. The name "Schill" was used by right-wing patriotic Austrian and German youth groups during the 1920s ("Freischar Schill" and "Schilljugend", the latter being a predecessor and then rival of the Hitlerjugend when it became the official Nazi youth movement after 1933).